Istanbul’s favoured Olympic bid now faces hurdles

The consequences of Istanbul’s unrest may take months, even years, to play out, but the implications for the city’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics are pressing.

Istanbul’s Olympic bid leaders have gathered in Lausanne, home of the International Olympic Committee, for scheduled meetings that have now taken on a greater degree of urgency.

In under three months, the IOC meets in Buenos Aires to make its choice for the 2020 games between Instanbul, Madrid and Tokyo. To most Olympic observers, Istanbul was the favourite, a choice that would take the games for the first time to a country with a mostly Muslim population.

That was until the Gezi Park and Taksim Square protests erupted. Suddenly, Istanbul’s bid leaders and advisers are caught up in crisis management, anxious to prevent the demonstrations from derailing their campaign.

“It would be naive to pretend the situation is not serious,” said Michael Payne, former IOC marketing director and a consultant to the Istanbul bid.

The bid team’s response is a lobbying strategy that persuades IOC members to look beyond the daily diet of uncomfortable TV images to the wider, lasting benefits of giving the games to Turkey.

The unfolding strategy appears to borrow from the pages of the sports playbook on attack being sometimes the best form of defence.

Breaking off from IOC discussions in Lausanne, Hasan Arat, the bid chairman, told the FT: “I am proud of our young people standing up for our beliefs in the peaceful process. Turkish people really respect our young people.”

Images of water cannons and tear gas being used on people being shown round the world may be troubling for Istanbul’s Olympic bid prospects. But to Mr Arat, the demonstrations were a reflection of a modern, young society.

“This is not a spring [uprising]. Don’t compare us to other people,” Mr Arat said. “We are united, we understand our young people and what they are trying to do.”

Istanbul’s lobbying won’t just rest on this refrain of “democracy in action”. IOC members’ egos will be massaged with whispers about their record in contributing to better global understanding of South Korea and China; how the award of the 1988 games to Seoul helped the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy; and how they can do the same for Turkey.

Istanbul is not the only player in this drama in a difficult spot. The IOC finds itself unusually cornered by the paucity of choices on offer. It has spurned overtures from Istanbul several times before – this is the city’s fifth bid.

Members might be relaxed about rejecting Istanbul again but for the narrow alternatives. One of these, Madrid, offers risk to the IOC because of Spain’s parlous economic position and the country’s uncomfortable reputation in sports doping. Tokyo is looking like the one safe banker – but this is not much cheer to IOC members.

The Lausanne gathering is the latest in a series of meetings to stress test the respective bids. A critical meeting comes at the beginning of next month at the IOC’s technical assessment, when Istanbul will be represented by deputy prime minister Ali Babacan.

“If the issue is still ongoing day by day, then it starts to become a bigger factor,” said Mr Payne.

Not surprisingly, Mr Arat was relieved that prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pulled back from confrontation, agreed to meet a group of protesters and came up with proposals to resolve the impasse. The outcome was “very good for democracy, for a better Turkey”, he said.

It is some breathing space for Istanbul’s bid at a key moment in the race that ends at the IOC meeting in Argentina. Mr Erdogan is expected to attend that gathering, said Mr Arat.

“We will tell the Olympic family what we have told it before,” said Mr Arat. “Nothing has changed. We will tell the truth. This is a modern and secular Turkey.”

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